Archive | November, 2016

No Need for Thanksgiving, but Thanks Anyway

28 Nov

The best thing that happened this past week was seeing Khalil’s feet lift off of the ground. Y’all, this child has been trying for months to imitate his sister in jumping. He would kind of bend his knees and then straighten them back out, raising his arms and grunting in a hilarious imitation of jumping. He even made it up onto his tippy toes after a while. Still wasn’t jumping, though. But now, folks, suddenly and certainly, he jumps! His feet go up in the air! If small children can’t make you see the miracles in everyday life, if you can’t feel the magic in absurdly simple things like rocks and bubbles and successfully pooping in a potty, you are missing out.

Speaking of poop… I know, who wants to talk about poop? Four year olds, apparently, because that is the number one topic of conversation for Lucia at the moment. Poop and princesses, but mostly poop. In both languages. This is a normal conversation for us:

Me: What did you do at school today, Lucia?

Lucia: Poopies!

Me: Did you play with so-and-so?

Lucia: No, just popo.

Sometimes I even know that they’ve done a certain activity- like they go on a walk every day. Every single day. Sometimes I’ve even seen pictures of them doing something, like making a lantern. So I’ll be like, Did you go on a walk today? And she’ll tell me no. Did you make lanterns? No. Did you do anything? No. Finally I asked her one day, So you just sat in the corner by yourself all day? Yeah, she said. That’s what I did. Smiling. We both know damn well  that is not what she did. But now that’s the game. Alas. That and poop. It’s a wonderful life, folks.

Lucia is also really into fashion these days. And I love her four year old fashion. She dresses up “really pretty” in shocking, eye-dazzling combinations of patterns and colors. She tells me, “My teacher’s gonna say I look so pretty today!” (I think she has some really awesome teachers, or else she has my outrageous self-assuredness. Perhaps both.) I try not to piss on her parade, although she does have to wear somewhat sensible shoes to school for their long walks. She’d prefer these crappy rubbery pink shoes or the Mary Janes “princess” shoes that are now too small for her.  Also, I did try to intervene the other day in the name of preventing excessive laundry. (As the sole laundry-doer in the house, this is a big problem.) She wanted to wear a tutu AND a dress. And you couldn’t even see the damn tutu under the dress. I tried to tell her that. We began a power struggle. I decided it was not a worthy battle and threw in the towel… And she ended up ditching the tutu and keeping the dress. Hopefully my tactics remain this effective when it’s time to discuss sex and consent and protection and whatnot instead of tutus and dresses.

In the moments when Lucia doesn’t want to be a goat (so she doesn’t have to clean up) or a grass-cutter (because those riding lawn mowers in Kentucky impressed the hell out of her), she’s now started saying that she’s going to be a teacher. “I’m going to go to work with you, Mommy!” As if it were all that simple. Of course she’d teach at the same place I currently teach. Of course I won’t ever change jobs and of course she’ll get hired there as well as soon as she’s a grown up and gets some magic fairy dust to turn into a teacher. I miss how small and intimate the world felt when I was her age and even older, when being able to go to the corner store a couple blocks away- without parents- was the biggest responsibility and privilege that you could imagine.

I love when she’s decided to play pretend and be a teacher. She walks by me and says, “Hi, student!” So that I say, “Hi, teacher!” Just like she’s seen my students do to me (for the record, I say their real names when I see them, not ‘hi, student.’) It’s like the way Khalil, who still prefers body language to words, will wave bye-bye to me for 3 minutes, in silence, until I notice and say “bye!” when he’s pretending to go bye bye in his plastic car or his broomstick horse or whatever. Sometimes my role seems like a bit part but a word or two is still a starring role to them.

Lucia is so much like me in her character. There was a little girl Lucia’s age at my volleyball game the other night, and she got mad about something and stomped off to sit down by herself. It was like the mildest tantrum I’ve ever seen. And another prof who always plays, who doesn’t have children, was like, “Does your little girl do that too?” I burst out laughing. “No, she’s way more demonstrative!” I told him. “She has your temper?” He asked me playfully, making fun of the fact that I get huffy and bossy when the boys start invading my territory and stealing the ball from me in volleyball. I wanted to tell him that he hadn’t seen nothing from me yet. And that Lucia could hold her own, too. She huffs and puffs and blows your whole damn house down. But instead I showed him my radiant smile and agreed. “Yep, definitely my character.” She gets hangry like me, too.

Khalil is his own force to be reckoned with as well. He hasn’t yet turned two, and he’s already training himself to eat spicy food. The other day I was seasoning my food with some medium-heat curry powder, and he insisted that I put some on his food. I told him and told him that it was spicy- pica, we say- but he kept pointing at the container and at his food. He beat on his chest like he does to say for me. I put a little bit on his food. He ate it. His eyes got very wide. He drank several gulps of water. And he ate some more. And more. He liked it! It was like the time I thought that my strong, bitter black coffee was going to cure Lucia of her desire to drink coffee, when instead she asked for more. Whoops. Remind me not to play chicken with these children.

Yesterday I made pancakes in a pan that I’d reheated salsa in. For some reason, even though I’d washed it well with soap, the first pancake in the batch came out with a spicy aftertaste. I split the first one between the kids because, as ALWAYS, they were starving to death. Khalil had already devoured most of his half when Lucia tried hers and started complaining that it was “pica.” I tried it, and sure enough, it was fairly spicy! Khalil finished off all his water but he sure didn’t complain. He’s gonna take after his mommy on this, apparently. (Don’t kid yourself that Conan loves all things spicy because he is Mexican. He likes some, but I could kick his butt in a chile-eating contest.)

I’ve mentioned before Khalil’s obsession with the garafones– the big jugs of drinking water that we buy. He’s now started speaking his first two words in Spanish, motivated by his need to communicate with his future boss, the garafon vendor. He can now say both “uno” and “dos”- theoretically depending on how many bottles we need, although really he just says either uno or dos when he wants to refer to garafones in general. Like if we see a truck full of them go by, he points and says “uno!” It’s pretty endearing.

This child is the kid who wants to do ALL the grown up things already. He is so uninterested in the majority of his toys; he’s very interested in re-organizing everything in my kitchen, and “helping” me with every single thing I do. We went to a birthday party the other day, and there were a bunch of plastic chairs sitting out for the kids. Khalil spent the first hour of the birthday party stacking them up and then putting them back when I’d unstack them, only to stack them all back up again 30 seconds later. I am always asking myself if there’s some way he can actually help me, and if not, how can I make it appear that he’s being helpful by doing the thing that I want him to do? These monsters certainly force me to stay creative. Khalil was giving me a very hard time about taking his new inhaled asthma medicine, but finally I brought his stuffed cat into the mix. Now Khalil has to give medicine to the cat before he does his own medicine. It’s doing the trick so far! Score one for Mommy!


These are the chairs Khalil was stacking. And this is how he wanted to sit in the chair. All by himself. No help for him, thanks. 

While Khalil still refuses to use words to communicate most of the time, his big sister is a verbal giant. Her Spanish has exploded thanks to her new school, and her English continues to grow to astounding new heights. I love talking to this child about as much as she loves to talk. I am hoping, however, that she doesn’t suffer the same fate that I did, thinking that because she’s all verbal, she can’t be visually creative as well. I’m feeling extra hopeful about it after she wrote her first book yesterday! I also wrote my first “book” at four, but I dictated it to my mom and then drew pictures to go with the words. Lucia was much more autonomous about it. She got scrap paper from the pile of scrap paper. She drew a bunch of pictures. She asked me for glue. I suspiciously inquired about her intentions for the glue. She explained, and I got all excited and instead of gluing we sewed the pages together with cheap dental floss (thank you, punk rock traveler kids from the 90s for teaching me to sew with free dental floss). Within a couple hours her brother had crinkled one page and then she left it in some water that had leaked out from the washing machine. It survived, but while we were waiting to see if the sunlight streaming in the door could cure it she went ahead and made another one, just in case. I am raising some resilient babies, after all.

When she was reading me her first published work at bedtime tonight, she made up all kinds of fascinating details for her squiggly lines and circles. But the best was her showing me two connected circle-ish parts and saying, “This little one is Khalil’s house. Us three live in the big house, and he lives in the little house.” When I probed into the reason behind Khalil living separately from us, she thought for a second and said, “Because he’s little. He needs a little house. We’re big, so we need a big house.” Uh-huh. No underlying psychology about getting your little brother out of your hair there, kiddo. Sure thing.

Lucia presents her book:

They’re growing so much, and teaching me so much. Although I could do without the constant tornado damage that Khalil leaves in his wake, and I hope he learns to respect books instead of tearing them up so lovingly like he does now, he is more fun than should be legal. And while I’d appreciate a little less screaming and melodrama from Lucia over every single thing (e.g. “Khalil’s wasting the water!! I don’t want you, Khalil!!”), hanging with her is such a wonderful adventure.

I don’t need any Thanksgiving holiday to be grateful for these monsters. (And no, nobody down here celebrates Thanksgiving.) Every day is Thanksgiving in my house, minus the brutally oppressive history and the consumerist free-for-all the next day.

I’m so grateful for these kids that even when I am pulling my hair out and losing my temper, even when it’s my turn for bedtime and they refuse to sleep, I valiantly resist all urges to sell them on ebay… Oh, wait, that’s just called parenting. Whatever. The point is, I love my pumpkin (Khalil) and my sunshine (Lucia) more than even real pumpkins and real sunshine. That is true love.

Thanks, Obama. (Did I utilize the meme right, Conan? No? I never get it right. Bwahahaha.)


Disasterous Dreary Doldroms of Despair

22 Nov

I doubt you want to read this, because I don’t even want to write it. I wish that I were writing about something else, but I’m not. I can’t. I can’t think about other things, still. I’m spending way too much time reading articles and scrolling facebook, trying to understand how this happened, and what to do from here. I don’t think things will ever “go back to normal.” The veil is lifted and it just gets uglier and uglier. I know this sounds melodramatic. I can only hope that I will look back later and think that I was being excessively dramatic. Based on what I’m reading and hearing, though, my anxiety being overzealous seems improbable at this point.

The day after the elections in my home country, I couldn’t mask my despair, even in the classroom. It was all over the news here, but I asked my students to give me time before we could discuss it. Silent tears betrayed me in one class, despite my best efforts to put on my mask. My dear, sweet students kept wondering out loud why their ever-enthusiastic teacher was gray and dreary.

I was extra ashamed about election results with my students because I am always trying to share a different image of the US with them. I’ve even made a powerpoint about Kentucky to give them an idea about something more real than Hollywood and some of the blond folks they see on the beach. (You can see it here: My Kentucky Heart, Sautéed, Not Fried) I always discuss what we have in common, how Oaxaca and Kentucky are among the poorest states in each nation, but both are rich in cultures and histories. I tell them about all the immigrants and refugees who are improving my city, how that is such a big part of what makes my home a good place to be. I’ve missed my community in the US so much that I finally plotted my return. And then this happens. And I am shattered, and unsure whether my dreams of home can come to fruition like I planned.

Nobody around here seems to understand just how devastated I am.* Yes, I knew before this that there was still major racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, etc. to fight against. But I’ve been here for four years, and the people I keep in touch with in the states are activists and artists and teachers and inventors and peace-makers and other amazing folks. So it seemed so improbable that the current political situation could ever possibly happen. Two weeks later, I still feel like surely this is some kind of sick joke someone is playing for the next dystopian novel. This cannot be a reality in my country. But it is.

It’s impossible to explain to “outsiders” how betrayed I feel. And by “outsiders” I mean folks who have never been blissfully surrounded by wonderfully social-justice-focused, beautiful, talented, brilliant people that I know and love in the USA.** If your image of the US is based on Hollywood, or the tourists at the beach here, you don’t know my people! You don’t understand the life I had in Kentucky (yes, poor “backwards” little Kentucky) and how lonely life has been here the last four years without a community to anchor myself in. Without mentors and surrogate big sisters and second mothers.

It’s not just my students who don’t get it. Other immigrants, folks from more civilized nations, are giggling at the prospects of gringos fleeing their homeland. And understandably, to an extent- the US is probably the most arrogant nation on Earth, as a generalization, and so to see its citizens potentially desperate and fleeing- as a generalization- could seem like a good comeuppance. But only if you don’t mind the context. Because the reality is that it probably won’t be those arrogant rich white tourists fleeing the country. It’s going to be the same folks who have always been shit on by the establishment, only more so now. The folks who have always been comfortable will probably continue to be okay, for the most part. Nothing righteous will come from this, in my humble opinion.

“Teacher, you’re in Mexico. No problem!” One of my students tried to console me. They don’t know about my hopes and dreams of going home. Even more importantly, even if I weren’t trying to go home, it affects me. It affects everyone I love in the US. I’m worried about all the hate crimes and extra hateful words amongst children. I’m worried about the proposal for a Muslim registry and hints about internment camps, and so much more.  And of course, there are all my concerns about global warming, about nuclear war, about human rights abuses- I could go on, but let’s not. If you’re reading this, I’m sure you’re probably freaking out about the same things. And it’s not like it won’t affect everyone here in Mexico, too- wall or no.  “If the US sneezes, Mexico gets a cold,” as Paulina says.

Folks here are much more accustomed to going about their life no matter what happens in politics. In general, they’re much more resigned to politicians being bad for them, to the system destroying them, and doing the best they can in life anyway. A taxi driver the other day assured me that my president-elect can’t be any worse than the current Mexican president, who was elected via fraud.“You have to work outside of the system anyway,” one of my other immigrant friends, who’s lived here much longer than I have, reminded me. Which is both true and yet not enough. The system affects us all, to some extent or another, no matter what. You can work outside of it but even that is a privilege sometimes- and what happens to all the folks who can’t work outside of it? And will I be putting my children directly into harm’s way if we move back now? And is the potential extra danger to them worth it- to have a community again, to be with my family again? Isn’t that part of what I’m teaching them, to stand up for what’s right, danger or no? Will there be a community for us to be a part of? Millions of questions about my priorities in life are on constant shuffle in my mind now. ***

I don’t have any answers- about anything. I’m having another existential crisis. Maybe the election is just one root cause of the rumination and contemplation that I’d be experiencing anyway with this life-altering move back to the US on the horizon. Regardless of why, I’m dumping my drama and doldrums on the rest of you. Sorry- a little. But I’ve got to get all this off my chest or I may never write anything fun or interesting again.

Meanwhile, telling me to cheer up or to quit thinking about it is not particularly helpful and not something I’m willing to do. Obviously, I am trying to cheer up, by continuing my gratitude practice, and trying to be more in the moment. But this is major, and I am not going to pretend that a crisis is not happening in my country. I need to stay informed, but I suspect that I’m going to have to put myself on strict time-limits and schedules for looking at Facebook and reading the news. (As some genius said, my desire to be well-informed is currently at odds with my desire to remain sane.)

I also suspect that I need to quit looking outside of myself for answers about major life changes. I need to sit with the fact that we don’t know exactly what will happen, or just how bad it will be. We don’t ever get to really know these things. Even if I make what seems like the best decision in the moment, of staying here or going back to the states, will it be the “wrong” decision if it has severe, negative consequences later? There will be positive and negative consequences either way, and many consequences on either side of the border will either be not forseeable or not preventable. So why am I in fight-or-flight mode about it now, 24 hours a day?

And that’s the definition of anxiety, right? Buying into the illusion that you have much more control over life’s outcomes that what you really have. Your control is probably nothing, or at least next to nothing, in the grand scheme of the universe, right? So how does one make any decisions in light of that?

Obviously, I’m having major anxiety and grief issues. I need to find some ways to manage that, but that cannot ever translate into doing nothing or ignoring the problems. Thus, I’ve taken on emailing my representatives on an issue, for example. I am signing petitions out the wazoo. How much will this help? Probably not much. What else can I do from here? This is a sincere question, not a rhetorical one! Beloved folks in the US, how can I support you from here? Please let me know!  I’m on the look-out for things to do in my own backyard, too.  I need to have some faith in humanity and I need to feel less isolated. So please let me know about opportunities to do something for someone else (that can happen from here with almost no money and not much internet access), especially as part of collective action,  or in a way that brings positive human interaction. Please and thank you.

I’m also appreciating my family, meanwhile. I’m thanking the universe daily for them. (And thanks, mom, for calling me to let me freak out about something or other almost every day.) My kids are doing their part to remind me to smile and enjoy the moment. That first week after the election, when my despair was a thick cloak that was slowly smothering me, I kept crying at random moments. I tried to explain to Lucia, in 4 year old terms, why I was so sad. Finally, by the weekend, she told me, “Mommy, I’m gonna make you laugh, so you’re not sad. I’m gonna talk to you about poopies!” Poop is better than the political situation, for sure, and an apt ending to this piece I wish I weren’t publishing.


*I won’t go in to all the details about why I feel like this, because so many other people have already said it so much better. This is one good example: about despair and such

**Yep, I was totally living in a bubble of awesome people. Sorry, but there it is.

**We will absolutely be moving back at some point or another. So if you’ve donated to our family unity immigration fund, rest assured that the money will still be used for the intended and express purposes of moving our family back to the US. We’ve already paid for the first step in the process thanks to your generosity, and we have the start of the next steps. It just might be longer than we planned.  We will keep you updated.

Also, Y’all: In case you weren’t sure about the racism and racist policy that is happening and is going to be a bigger and bigger part of our government and our lives under Trump, here’s one of many recent examples.  About how all racists are more and more excited and inspired by this election and Trump’s staff picks- from NPR

Another good, quick read that I’m not alone in my panic: from Dan Rather (not some radical person)

Also, here’s something elso to do and read about- which is an example of how there was already plenty of justice work to be done BEFORE this crazy election. AAAHHH! about sacred water- celebrate Thanksgiving by taking action!

A Gratitude Interlude

8 Nov

Lately I’ve pretty much been one giant ball of stress, chaos, and anxiety, so…. We interrupt your regularly scheduled programming to bring you this important announcement:

These things only happen to the living. (like my Nonna always said)

I write at least three things to be grateful for every morning as I drink my coffee. It’s a good way to start my day, and over time it’s augmented the fabulousness in my life tenfold. But sometimes the morning gratitudes are just not enough. I need a bit more focus on the gratitude. A bit less wallowing in my problems, pulling my hair out trying to find solutions that don’t exist. So here goes.

First off, our car is permanently dead-to-us (RIP Poderoso), despite all our valiant efforts. So I’m incredibly, madly grateful to the parents with functioning cars who are schlepping Lucia to school and back with their kids. (Thank you, thank you, thank you; it is the difference between our kid going to school or not.) I’m grateful that public transportation exists to get Lucia to the car pool pick-up spot so she can get a ride. I’m grateful that Lucia gets to go to a school that she is thrilled about every day of the week, and that it’s a school that’s also totally in-line with our parenting values (more on that to come). Even though sometimes I feel bad about needing help, I know that we would do the same for someone else, and that makes me feel better about it.

I’m grateful that Conan has a paying job outside of the house! It means more work and more stress for both of us, but the economic stress is already greatly lessoned. “Conan,” I said, “we’re halfway through my pay period and I haven’t had a panic attack about money! This is serious progress!!”

I’m insanely, intensely grateful that we’ve turned in the first step of our paperwork for immigration. That people threw a benefit karaoke potluck for us, and more folks keep donating, keep sending us their wishes and energy and hope and love. Can’t even tell you how awesome it is.

I’m majorly grateful that Arturo is lending us his truck for Conan to get to work and back. I’m grateful that there were no accidents in the week that Conan spent driving it with nearly non-existant brakes until we had enough money for repairs. I’m grateful that the bald tires are holding out so far (keep your fingers crossed for us- it’s next on the list).

I’m grateful for the obligatory quality time I have with Khalil every day that we go to pick up Lucia from the carpool drop-off spot. I used to spend a good portion of my lunch break getting lunch ready, but now Khalil and I go for a walk to catch a bus or a colectivo (shared taxi) and we have a big adventure to pick up the big sister. The whole ride there, he shouts about every big vehicle that he sees, which is approximately every three seconds. “Yes, dump truck,” I agree. “Yes, another big semi.” He barely says words- except more, his first and most important word- but he make a vroom vroom noise, and a buuuuhhhh deep rumbling in his throat noise that means ‘big.’ This child is determined to communicate. We continue our fun if Lucia’s not at the spot yet, playing with sticks or leaves, or throwing rocks or reading a book. It’s truly a pleasant time that I used to not have on a daily basis.

I’m grateful that at least the three of us still get to eat lunch together, and that I have a crock pot! It has rescued me in a big big way. Otherwise we might be eating tuna sandwiches every other day.

I’m grateful that we’re not totally destitute. I’m grateful that we have nutritious food to eat and a safe and sturdy shelter. A man was working on a neighbor’s yard the other day, “cutting the grass” like they do here- by hand, with a machete, slowly wacking away, in the sweltering heat and humidity, for two days, at the tall weeds that had overtaken the landscape. While we talked, he inquired about the casita– the “little house” on our property. “This building?” I asked him, pointing again at our shed. Yep, he meant the shed- the tiny tin shack where Conan slept while the house was being built. He wanted to live there for a while with his family. “Got my perspective back in check,” I told my mom, “when I realized that we are ‘rich’ enough to have a garage that could be someone’s house.”

I’m grateful that we have a home- not just a shelter, but a refuge. It’s an appealing, spacious-enough-for-four, comfortable, comforting place that’s all our own. Even though it’s unfinished and might never be finished, even though we still don’t have doors separating rooms, even though half the time it’s a hurricane-style disaster of toys and clothes strewn about and dishes left undone, it’s ours and I love it.

I’m grateful for this past weekend’s few calm minutes to sit by the back door and look out at the world with my littler firecracker. For smoothies made of strawberries and Oaxacan chocolate, and a surprise afternoon storm.


Khalil’s favorite spot- looking out the door… Normally he likes to sit in this little chair, but when I sat on the floor with him, he decided to sit on the floor, too.


Cheers! To chocolate and children.

I’m grateful that thus far my rambunctious, determined, fiercely excited littler one hasn’t injured himself in any dire way yet (I’m pretty sure it’s going to be inevitable with this one). That so far we’ve managed to keep him from ingesting bleachy cleaning water; he only dumped a little bit on top of himself that one time. That the soapy dirty bath water he drinks on the sly sometimes doesn’t seem to do much damage (and let me remind you, tap water here is not drinking water to begin with). That just yesterday he only drank about 1ml of Lucia’s steroid dose that he grabbed off the table in the .2 seconds that I turned my back; glad it was not the whole thing (especially since it was right after he’d had his full dose). That despite several falls (off the bed, against the concrete wall from throwing himself in playful abandon, etc.) he seems to have avoided concussions so far. That he has so many moments of random tenderness and hugging and loving and smiling to make up for wrecking the entire house every 15 minutes of every single day.

I’m grateful that my wild thing older one has such a strong, unstoppable imagination. That she can play by herself and create an entire complex little world for sometimes hours at a time. I love that she’s never seen a whole princess movie and yet she proclaims herself an expert in princesses. I love the rules she makes up about them. “Princesses are always nice, right?” she says. Or she refuses to brush her hair because apparently that’s princess-style. Even though I thought I was anti-princess, I love the conversations we have thanks to this princess obsession. She puts on one of her fancy dresses and says how pretty she is, and we talk about how everyone’s pretty in different ways, for example. She told me the other day, “Mommy, you’re the prettiest, because your hair do like this,” and she fluffed out my hair and made little wispys like it does. “Your hair is the funnest,” she said, and my heart totally melted. Every other day, between bouts of screaming at her brother and throwing tantrums, she says fun and interesting and tender stuff that makes me glad to keep her. More love in my heart than I thought I could stand- thank you, universe, for this.


Lucia’s make-believe time: always an elaborate affair


I’m so grateful that we’ve been able to buy a nebulizer to treat our kids’ asthma. That Khalil doesn’t mind wearing a mask over his face because we read so many books while we do it. That we have such a fabulous pediatrician, who’s very experienced in asthma treatments, and who doesn’t even get pissed at me for calling in the middle of the night in a panic. (Read more about how great she is here.) That both of our kids are now going to be on daily asthma preventative medication (WHAT did people do before all these treatments existed?). We just had a crazy week with the both of them with asthma attacks- even though Lucia already takes preventative medication, and it’s been so stressful and anxiety-inducing. But I’m so grateful that they’re okay, and they’re going to be okay.

I’m grateful that my kids are awesome, healthy eaters. It kind of makes up for them being such crappy sleepers. When Lucia practically begged me to share my broccoli snack the other day, and then Khalil ate a bunch later on, I laughed maniacally to myself, thinking, “Yes, I accept this sure-to-be-temporary victory!”

I’m grateful for about a kajillion other things, but this has been enough to stem the tide of chaos and woe for a bit. I’ll leave it at that and give you time to think about your own “gratitudes.” Thanks, universe, and thanks, friends. I’m happy to be here with you.

Rejecting Compliments, Resisting White Privilege: A Call for Help

1 Nov

I first realized just how disgustingly prized and privileged being light-skinned is here when we lived in Juquila. When people commented about my appearance, I could never quite separate out how much of their impression was just because I was foreign. A gringa living amongst us! Can you imagine! Men would congratulate Conan in the street for bringing home this rare, first-class acquisition. (I know. Patriarchy on top of it all. Sigh.) That was bad enough, but at least I could blame some of my ill-gotten fame on the small town, we’ve-never-seen-foreigners factor.

When people complimented baby Lucia, though, it made me particularly uncomfortable and embarrassed. “Look at her!” They’d say, “Just like the Gerber Baby! So adorable!” Which might seem innocuous enough, until you saw the larger trend of comments. “She looks just like her mama,” they’d say, totally negating all the obvious facial features that she inherited from her Papi, which to us were plain as day. “She got the light-skin from her mama; how beautiful!” and even things like, “Look how white she is! It’s a shame she didn’t get her mama’s eye color, though!”

Just look at these two. There’s no way you could deny their resemblance. Except people did!

I couldn’t say thank you, because it felt awful. It was like they were negating my husband. Like they were lessening themselves. Like they were denying part of Lucia- specifically the Mexican part of her. Like they or their child’s brown skin, brown eyes, black hair wasn’t as beautiful. How could I say thank you for that? I needed to respond, and I didn’t know how.

I still don’t know how. “Look at that precious guerito!” people gush over Khalil. When it’s another parent and they’re with their child, I am quick to pay some adoring compliment to their child, but beyond that I’m not sure what to do. I second-guess every compliment aimed at my kids. Obviously, I think they are adorable, because they’re my kids and I adore them, but I don’t want them to be taught that they’re good-looking because they’re “white.”

If it sounds like I’m over-reacting, let me give you a clearer example of the problem:

“I wish I were guerita (light-skinned) like Lucia,” Evelyn, one of the kids’ cousins, told me one day. It wasn’t the first time our 8 year old niece had mentioned skin color to me, but it was the moment that it was painfully obvious to me just how deeply society’s systemic racism had penetrated her little-girl psyche already. Just in case I didn’t get it, she bemoaned herself further, complaining, “I don’t want to be morena (dark-skinned). It’s ugly.”

The ambulance in my head switched on the siren and roared into gear. Help! Emergency! Pre-pubescent girl already hating herself! Code red! All hands on deck! (Okay, obviously I’ve never worked in health care and I know zero emergency slang. Forgive me. This is totally the kind of blubbering idiot that I am when in a panic. Which I was.) “What?!” I asked her, trying not to yell and shake her.

I took a breath and tried to talk and look normal. “You don’t need to be guera,” I started. “You’re already beautiful, just like you are.” Cliché, I know. But it’s true, it’s so true- Evelyn with her friendly, extroverted spirit. She’s who always comes and takes the hand of whatever family member of mine is visiting, to lead them around, to show them all they need to know, entrusting them with her wide open heart. Evelyn who’s curious and unapologetically opinionated. Evelyn who also has gorgeous wide eyes and a lovely smirk, among other radiant attributes. Evelyn who is brown-skinned and beautiful.

“Yeah?” she asked, sounding as hopeful as I felt disheartened by her remark. “I’m beautiful?” I reiterated that she was, and that I love her. She smiled and swept me away to show me something her parents had bought her.

I wanted to sit her down to talk about all the shades of beautiful. I wanted to talk about beauty’s source, about how it’s what’s on the inside, and how you feel about yourself that makes or breaks beauty. I wanted to say that society’s views on beauty are a total load of horseshit anyway. I wanted to sit down and have a long, age-appropriate talk about racism and prejudice and discrimination. I wanted to find time to walk around together, surf the internet together, and point out all the beautiful women with skin like hers. I wanted to find princesses and doctors and fairy godmothers and warriors and presidents and other Wonderful Women with brown skin like hers, and talk about how beautiful they are, to discuss the different forms of beauty. I wanted to rant and rave about the system and how fucked up it is that an 8 year old girl has already gotten the message that she’s not worth as much as another little girl. I started to say a whole lot of stuff to her, but I was so overwhelmed with how to go about it all, and she had already changed the subject.

Race in Mexico is fairly homogenous, in the sense that the grand majority of Mexicans are a mix of indigenous genes and European genes, with some African and some Asian genes in a few places. Despite this theoretical “sameness” there is a huge variation in skin tones and other aspects of appearance that people attribute to race. And there is absolutely a racism problem in Mexico. This is what racism looks like here. It has a different history than in the US, but the resulting prizing and privileging of all that is white is the same. It’s deeply rooted and entrenched in the culture, just like in the US.

So what does it matter, that I, the exotic foreign white girl auntie, am trying to tell Evelyn that she’s beautiful and valued? It’s so far from sufficient. She’s already learned and internalized the message that she’s not beautiful, because of her lovely brown eyes, because of her shiny black hair, because of her very own skin, the blanket enveloping her beautiful existence, that’s already betraying her, making her other, less-than beautiful. And if here in Mexico, where some shade or another of brown skin is the majority and the norm, if even here her brown skin is not valued, what must it be like in the U.S., in England, in Ireland, in all the places where brown skin is “other?” The injustice of it is maddening.

I’m not worrying about her beauty in terms of how many people might ask her out to dance, but I am worried about her feeling as valued and worthy as anybody. Even if it were “just” about a little girl’s body image, it still wouldn’t be okay to teach a girl to hate herself in the body that she lives in. But it’s so far beyond that.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his book Between the World and Me, talks about how it’s absolutely that kind of prejudice that is part of what leads us down the path to the devaluing and dehumanizing of a whole people. It really struck a chord with me when I read that he realized that “…the larger culture’s erasure of black beauty was intimately connected to the destruction of black bodies.”

This has severe consequences. It’s why people of color are constantly being killed by police officers in the US. It’s why there are so many cases of indigenous women here giving birth on the lawn or in the bathroom of the hospital, because no one could be bothered to receive their precious baby, who’s already being valued and cared for less, starting at birth. It’s why Conan got stopped by the police for walking with his own daughter (read about it here). It’s the kind of thing that they talk about in this study, where they found that teachers expect more bad behavior from African American boys in preschool. The effects of prejudice are so far-reaching, so consequential.

And prejudice starts with precisely this kind of attitude: that the lighter your skin is, the better-looking you are. I’m not blaming the entire institution of racism on friends’ and family’s comments, but I do think that what we say- especially in front of children- makes a difference. These seemingly well-intentioned compliments about my kids’ light skin perpetuates racism. I still don’t know exactly what to say when I hear it, but I know it’s imperative that I say something. Help me, please! I need suggestions! I realize now that it’s not enough to have conversations with my kids about it in private; I need to confront this racism in the moment- in a nice way, but in a way that expresses that I don’t agree, for example, that they’re cute because of their skin color. This is important not just for my children, but also for Evelyn, and all the other beautiful, valued, worthy people of all shades of skin, who need to get the message that they ARE beautiful.

There are lots of other ways I think we can make a difference. Please leave comments with suggestions!